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Black Pete: race, power and identity

White people in blackface celebrated as part of a “tradition”? The Dutch are one of the most progressive people in Europe, but the controversial character known as Zwarte Piet reveals a blind spot on the subject of race. Are the Dutch not fully aware of their history?



I once heard a joke that went something like this: when the world is coming to an end, move to the Netherlands because everything happens there 50 years later. A bit harsh, I thought, after all, the Dutch are a relatively progressive people with much to recommend them: from the high level of volunteering and Amnesty International membership relative to other European countries to their pragmatism and absence of hysteria around subjects like cannabis, prostitution, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. And the Netherlands is also the originating country for the World Press exhibition. Then there are the other humane and social indicators such as the unemployed being entitled to holiday money and time, and homelessness is one-fifth that of the States. On the matter of race, though, you do wonder.

The caricature
There are a number of subtle and unsubtle methods by which white Dutch people remind black Dutch people that they are tolerated but not yet fully accepted citizens. The most unsubtle of these methods happens once a year around this time, by way of a character called “Zwarte Piet” (translation: Black Pete).

In the United stated you have Santa Claus, in the UK he’s Father Christmas, and in the Netherlands he’s called Sinterklaas. Unlike the other Santas, though, Sinterklaas arrives with his slave/servant called Zwarte Piet. The slave-servant comes dressed like a renaissance minstrel: blackface, painted red lips, afro wig (for tight curly hair), classic “darkie” iconography. The arrival is a huge event: Sinterklaas and the ‘Zwarte Pieten’ make a grand entrance, and the whole parade is broadcast on public television. Sinterklaas sits tall on a white horse while his black servants share out candy to the kids on the sidelines, and families from all over the country either turn up to watch the arrival or watch it on TV. Or course, to cover the country there will be several Black Petes, typically played by white people, all in blackface, with red painted lips and afro wigs. And many people across the country dress up as Zwarte Piet, too, kids and adults alike.

St. Nicholas arriving in the Netherlands with his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)

St. Nicholas arriving in the Netherlands with his Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes)

The transformation, however, is not complete with the outfit and greasepaint. The character must speak poor Dutch with a stupid accent, and must act childlike and mischievous when performing, thus reinforcing an old stereotype of black people. And from mid-November, when Sintaklass and his servants arrive, right through till the 5th of December, you can see Zwarte Pieten on various television programmes and TV commercials, and on the streets, acting the fool.

At schools across the country, children sing songs referring to the skin tone and character of the black servant “…even if I’m black as coal I mean well…”, “Saint Nicolas, enter with your Black servant”, etc, and there are other old songs about Zwarte Piet in which he’s made out to be a little bit stupid, a little bit clumsy, more akin to a child than an adult, the same generalisations previously applied to black people, but which can no longer be made explicitly, so here’s a “tradition” that allows it to be made implicitly.


Bear in mind that Sintaklass is white – always white – so, essentially, the Netherland’s biggest Christmas-related celebration consists of a white man who serves as overlord to a group of stupid, forever subordinate black servants with big, red lips and woolly hair, thus mirroring the slave-master relationship of old and keeping the symbolism of the relationship intact in contemporary society.

Bear in mind, also, that the Netherlands is not a remote and isolated country unwittingly celebrating something that has no connection to its history. The Dutch were deeply involved in the slave trade, enriching themselves over centuries at the expense of millions of black people, some of whose descendants live in the Netherlands today.

Engraved in the Dutch history. A depiction of slavery on the Royal Golden Coach. Detail of "Tribute of the Colonies”, a depiction of slaves offering their goods to the royal family. It appears on the side of the Dutch royal family's Golden Coach.

Engraved in the Dutch history. A depiction of slavery on the Royal Golden Coach. Detail of “Tribute of the Colonies”, a depiction of slaves offering their goods to the royal family. It appears on the side of the Dutch royal family’s Golden Coach.

Historically, European mythology has not been kind to people of colour. European mythology hasn’t even been kind to Jewish people, but the second world war put an end to the caricature of Jews. The European tradition of portraying black people as savages, wicked and devilish or inherently dim-witted and suitable only for servitude, has mostly vanished from popular culture due to the protests and the realisation that these depictions are deeply racist and damaging, and have no place in the modern world. Americans got rid of their coon-themed iconography and the Brits have mostly done away with the golliwog figure, as they did with the Black and White Minstrel stage show which was stopped in 1987 (the TV show was stopped in 1969, following petitions and protests). Mind you, the damage had already been done. Repeated over centuries, these portrayals sit deep in the consciousness of many white (and black) people today, and continue to influence the way black people are perceived. Actually, you will still find derogatory references to dark skin in many of the classic European fairy tales, a political act woven into popular culture for kids to absorb sub-consciously.

So what on is going on with the Dutch? How can such an abhorrent anachronism exist in a seemingly modern and progressive country? As one writer put it, “millions of black people were killed or enslaved by white people over four centuries, and millions more continue to suffer discrimination all over Europe and in the States, so this Zwarte Piet character is about as funny as wearing a swastika.” If that sounds like an exaggeration, imagine what would happen today if you sang “Saint Nicolas, enter with your Jewish servant” and you immediately see that this is more than just an innocent song.

[youtube id=”r2H6SXaWxuo” mode=”normal” maxwidth=”420″]In a satirical sketch from 2007, Dutch comedy duo the Groen Brothers that takes the figure of Zwarte Piet to the limits of ridicule in order to show how he is in fact really seen.

When I first heard of Zwarte Piet, I assumed something so obviously offensive must be known all over the world, and that I was probably one of the last to hear of it. Because, to me, this looks like an insulting and deeply racist remnant from the centuries of slavery and colonialism.


But since then I’ve discovered that few of my friends and acquaintances in various parts of Africa and even in the UK had heard of it, either, and the ones who had only learned about it in the last year or so. But then, the Netherlands is a very small country (of only 16 million people) on the edge of mainland Europe, and most people probably have no reason to study it closely unless they already live there, know someone who does, or plan to visit or live in the country at some point.

I also assumed the signs that this character stereotypes black people would be obvious to Dutch people, but most Dutch people (white and black) go to great lengths to maintain that the caricature either has no racial connotations or that the racial connotations should be seen as positive, that he is not a caricature of a black servant or a racist stereotype playing step-n-fetch for his master, he is, apparently, just a “Moorish assistant” who simply enjoys doing all the work for his white friend. So celebrating this character is normal, just as people once convinced themselves that slavery was merely a reflection of the natural order, and so quite normal, too.

This denial reveals a weak, passive-aggressive and hypocritical side to the Dutch character that is at odds with their otherwise liberal, forward-thinking outlook. The Netherlands is a democratic, multi-cultural society, but this Zwarte Piet issue makes you wonder if this is in name only. Black Dutch people are tolerated, but there’s a difference between tolerance and full acceptance. Did the Second World War mark the limit of Dutch people’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of others and use the knowledge gained by such empathy to guide their behaviour in the present? Why can’t many white Dutch people empathise with their fellow black citizens? I really have no idea. It’s not peculiar to the Dutch, though. As one commenter responding to an article about Zwarte Piet put it, “I think that this can be said of all predominantly White cultures: there is a lack of empathy when people who have not historically been disadvantaged by slavery, colonialism or institutional racism and are not under- or poorly represented in popular culture, sport, music and mainstream society.

Zwarte Piet’s continued presence has aroused controversy. In recent years, protesters have gathered to object to his inclusion in holiday celebrations. (Photo credit - Bas Czerwinski/EPA)

Zwarte Piet’s continued presence has aroused controversy. In recent years, protesters have gathered to object to his inclusion in holiday celebrations. (Photo credit – Bas Czerwinski/EPA)

Over the years, though, a growing number of Dutch people have started to see that Zwarte Piet is indeed a racist emblem of Holland’s colonial past. This group is still in the minority, but one of the most gratifying things about it is that it includes black as well as white people. They have been speaking out against Zwarte Piet and calling for the character to be done away with or significantly altered. Journalists like Margriet Oostveen (who writes for one of the NRC, one of the country’s most important newspapers) have written articles and columns condemning the continued celebration of this figure. Another group is petitioning the Dutch ministry of education to get Zwarte Piet out of schools, and finally, for the first time in all these years of protest, a Dutch politician and councillor (who is white) has stated publicly that it is time for Dutch society to do away with Zwarte Piet. “Sinterklaas once started without Zwarte Piet and it’s time to continue without him” she said. If it were up to her, she said, the painted face of the “Piet” would be replaced by a single wipe of carbon black. That’s similar to what John Helsloot (Meertens institute) proposed. “In essence, Zwarte Piet is a racist phenomenon”, said the researcher in an interview with The Parool (the national newspaper that reported the news on its front page). “The phenomenon is part of a traditional notion that a subservient role suits black people best.” Helsloot referred to the ratification of the Netherlands by the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage as “A wonderful opportunity to say goodbye to Zwarte Piet.”

However, those who insist there’s nothing racist about Zwarte Piet typically respond to opposition with insults and even death threats. They see any opposing view as an attempt to take away their “tradition” or tell them what to do (the Dutch are a proud, independent-minded people).

"Black Pete is outdated," wrote the influential  Dutch newspaper Het Parool

“Black Pete is outdated,” wrote the influential Dutch newspaper Het Parool

I was fortunate enough to speak to some of the Dutch-Africans involved in the protest to rid Dutch society of this “tradition”, including a rapper called Kno’Ledge Cesare; he was born in Ghana but moved to the Netherlands at the age of 11. He’s one of the guys behind a campaign called “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” (translation: “Black Pete is Racism”). I will write more about Kno’Ledge in part II of this article.

But first, some background to Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and then I’ll discuss the general issue of the Dutch and race. If you are already familiar with the myth, scroll down to “Race, Power and Identity”.


Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet: the Myth and Legend
Sinterklaas is based on a real Turkish bishop from the Middle Ages who hailed from the city of Mira in what is modern-day Turkey (as someone wrote, we have so normalized whiteness as a monolithic representation of humanity that we accept Santa as white). After his death, the Byzantium declared him a saint (I’m not sure how, but apparently his remains ended up in what was then a Spanish City, which is why the tradition says that he comes from Spain), and since then he has been remembered during a widely celebrated annual holiday in offices, schools and homes across the Lowlands (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), the idea being to give each other presents and irony- and humour-rich poems poking fun at one another. Children are taught to believe that their presents are from Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) who is accompanied by a black servant called ‘Black Peter’, and adults dress up as Saint Nicholas and Black Peter (a white person painted in black face), and visit children and adults.

St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children, Sailors, Thieves and the Falsely Accused

St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children, Sailors, Thieves and the Falsely Accused

Originally, the character that accompanied Saint Nicholas symbolised the devil, a submissive, frightening and disobedient “joker”. Saint Nicholas was eventually banned, but reappeared at the end of the 18th century, this time alone.

The devil character eventually returned, but this time as a servant of Moorish descent (Spain was part of the Moor empire), wearing the costume of child slaves working in Europe at the time. The character carried a large bag and a rod and threatened to abduct children who behaved badly. The racial ideas from the era of slavery and colonialism were translated into the character.

But “Moor” as a term referred to one of the many different groups originating in North Africa (that at one time controlled Spain), and the physical traits of the Moors varies, however the depiction of Zwarte Piet has remained consistent: dark skin, tight, black, curly hair and red lips. It’s worth remembering that this was a time when few white people anywhere took the feelings of black people seriously. Most Dutch people at the time had never even seen a black person, and colonialism and racial superiority were still very credible ideas.

Then in 1850, a Dutch school reached called Jan Schenkman published an illustrated children’s book called Saint Nicholas and his Servant. In the book, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain with a black servant of African origin (the name “Piet” doesn’t appear until 1891) who helps him on his rounds. At the time, the Dutch empire spread across three continents and included the colonies of Suriname and Indonesia. As mentioned earlier, the Dutch were deeply involved in the slave trade, transporting African slaves to be sold and using slave labor to work coffee and sugar plantations in their colonies. At the time, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment.

St Nick before Schenkman

St Nick before Schenkman

Illustration from Schenkman's book, circa 1885

Illustration from Schenkman’s book, circa 1885

One can debate whether Piet was supposed to be a Moor or the devil, or even how Moors appeared to European eyes, but looking at how the Dutch (and other Europeans) depicted black people at the time, it’s hard to see anything but a caricature of black people in the figure of Zwarte Piet.

Writer Lulu Njemileh Helder notes that “the combination of the small Black Peter and horse-riding Saint Nicholas, represents the triumph of good over bad, Christian over heathen, and later, Christianity over Islam. They’re caught in a relationship of dualism. Of this dualism, Val Plumwood writes: ‘dualism … results from a certain kind of dependency on a subordinated other. This relationship of denied dependency determines a kind of logical structure, in which the denial and the relation of domination/subordination shape the identity of both the relata.’ (Plumwood in Gravenberch, 1998). Gravenberch points out that: ‘the contrast between the Saint Nicholas and Black Peter stands in a long tradition of dichotomised representation in which Europeans portrayed themselves and Africans as essentially different: Europeans as rational responsible, civilised, mature and as masters. Africans as irrational, wild, childish and as slave’. Saint Nicholas is being portrayed as everything Black Peter is not. The Saint is an old white, wise, and articulated man. Peter is a young, black, simple, cheeky (classically followed by a reprimand from the Saint), boy.


Over the years, the Dutch have tried to rationalise their continued celebration of the character; they decided, for instance, that his dark appearance is due to his having come down a chimney to leave the presents, i.e. the blackface is soot – but this explanation obviously doesn’t hold water; if soot, how come he doesn’t simply have a few smudges rather than being black all over, and when did soot ever turn anyone’s lips red or give them a curly afro? Still, the explanation is peddled.

Other rationalisations include:

1. Black people take part, too.

Well, yes, some do, and will continue to defend it to the hilt until somebody calls them Zwarte Piet (which happens) or until someone points out the similarities between the way Zwarte Piet looks and the way Dutch people used to depict Africans during the era of the slave trade and colonialism. As Laura Bijnsdorp, writing in the Daily Herald, noted: “I attended a formal debate on the topic [of Zwarte Piet]. The moment that it all became real to me was when the question was asked: Who has ever been called Zwarte Piet? About sixty percent of the room lifted up their hand, the other forty percent that did not raise their hand being the white audience, including myself. My friend next to me had lifted her hand as well, telling me afterwards that twice a child had called her Zwarte Piet, and both times the parents did not correct the child. It’s just a child though and he/she means well, because they like Zwarte Piet. I realized, seeing those raised hands, that a child does make a link between Zwarte Piet, the mischievous helper, whose current depiction stems from slavery, and a person of African descent. It’s not a very positive image. Every year people that know the history must look at a reenactment of colonial slave-times being celebrated. To some it might be an innocent children’s holiday but to others it must be painful having to smile as the country cheers on Sint Nicholas and his helpers.” It’s like that Bill Hicks joke where he asks if Jesus would really want to see so many reminders of his Crucifixion hanging from chains around people’s necks if he returns. There were slaves who, born into slavery, couldn’t see what all the fuss about freedom was for, either. It doesn’t mean slavery was good for them.

2. Zwarte Piet isn’t from sub-Saharan Africa, he’s from Morocco, or Spain.


Ok, but then why is his skin so dark, rather than olive-coloured, and why are his lips red? And why does he have an afro? And why does he behave like a fool?).

3. But the kids love it, so what can we do?

I’m sure American kids loved their coon-themed toys, too, but that was no reason to hang onto them. How about doing what the Dutch-speaking Belgians in the region of Flanders did? They altered the tradition by making Sinterklaas a black man and Pete his white helper [According to my source, this alteration to the tradition only happened in one Belgian city.] After all, if everyone is indeed equal – as the Dutch insist – and if Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet’s relationship isn’t symbolic of the master-slave relationship, then there’s no reason why this switch should be a problem.

4. I’m not a racist.

It’s possible to not be a racist and unwittingly participate in a racist act.


5. It’s harmless fun. We don’t see Zwarte Piet as a black person, and neither do kids. They see him as Zwarte Piet.

Why, then, do some white kids call black Dutch people Zwarte Piet? Some are clearly making the connection. And why do you have white adults calling out to their black colleagues, “Hey, our very ‘own’ Zwarte Piet!”? One commentator, Martin, who clearly doesn’t buy the Zwarte Piet is “harmless fun” rationalisation, wrote “If the Dutch government thinks that Zwarte Piet is correct, just invite Barack Obama over for dinner on the 5th of December. But we all know they ain’t gonna do that; they ain’t that dumb.”

A pre-school learner proudly presents his interpretations of Zwarte Piet.

A pre-school learner proudly presents his interpretations of Zwarte Piet.

6. Because he’s black doesn’t make him a racist caricature.

No, his blackness doesn’t, but add the wooly hair, the red lips, the fact that he’s made to seem a little dim-witted, and the fact that he’s subservient to a white man, and it’s hard to see the character as just a “friend” of Santa rather than a caricature. Another commentator, Gloria, responding to the same article as the first commentator quoted above, wrote: “The context of his character (and yes, he is fictional) is racist. The fact that Dutch people at one time in history enriched themselves at the expense of so many people of colour, and that they used to hold views of ‘stupid’ and ‘mischievous’ and ‘sooty’ and ‘labouring’ black people is not peripheral to the existence of ‘Zwarte Piet’.”

5. The final response once all the above rationalisations have been pulled apart is (and note, there’s usually no counter argument to the dismantling of the rationalisations): it’s our tradition, and as a foreigner you can’t understand it, as though this particular “tradition” was not only handed down by God with the 10 commandments, and so must not be violated for feast of eternal damnation or that there are such mysterious depths to this “tradition” that words cannot capture its meaning.

The white (and black) Dutch people I spoke to who are against Zwarte Piet and who, after all, have been brought up in exactly the same culture as the people who defend the caricature, say there’s nothing mysterious about it at all. It is what you see, and if you make the connections with the country’s history of slavery and colonialism, it’s just a racist caricature of black people. Furthermore, traditions that fail to keep up with the times are altered or “retired” all the time. And, remember, this current incarnation of the caricature was only made up by a school teacher in 1850, and this is common knowledge, so Zwarte Piet hasn’t always been part of anyone’s tradition.


[youtube id=”Oz5fzD9U_b8″ mode=”normal” maxwidth=”760″]The anti-Zwarte Piet camp includes both black and white people.

Flavia Dzodan, a South American-born, Amsterdam-based activist speaking in The Root says, “I am afraid to say — and I know this will not go down well with many Dutch white people — that Black Pete is tainted beyond redemption. There is no redeemable quality in this character in its current incarnation. There is no going around the racist nature of a character that acts as a de facto slave for a white saint, who is portrayed as clumsy and mischievous, who is used as an instrument to instil fear in children who misbehave. There is an ‘unchallenged notion’ of cultural superiority in the Netherlands, and it hinders an honest conversation about Piet. A culture cannot [consider itself] simultaneously superior and deeply flawed in terms of racism.”

Race, power and Identity
As I hinted in the first paragraph, Zwarte Piet is not the only sign that the Dutch have a problem with race. Dutch society also has more subtle ways of reminding black people of their place and keeping them there. If you spend any time in the Netherlands, you will soon hear the words “allochtoon” used in polite conversation.

People of ‘non-western’ descent are labeled “allochtoon”, not only by the white society, but also by law. “Allochtoon” is based on a Greek word, “allokhthon”, and means “found in a place other than where they were formed”. But no non-Dutch white person living in the Netherlands is referred to as allochtoon, only non-white people, Dutch and otherwise. These allochtonen, the “outsiders” (many of who, mind you were born and raised in the Netherlands) are the ones typically accused by the right-wing politician Geert Wilders and others of exploiting the country’s resources and social services while not integrating properly into Dutch society. The word allochtoon is thus used as a continuous reminder to people of colour in the Netherlands that white-Dutch people simply do not see them as an equal member of the society, let alone as Dutch, no matter multi-cultural said society might appear on the surface. Thus it serves the purpose of denying full and meaningful citizenship to anyone who isn’t white, even if they and their parents have known no other country as home.

One-fifth of the Dutch population consists of people of colour. This includes people from former colonies like Indonesia and Surinam (the Surinamese population in the Netherlands (about 350,000 people) is very diverse, and it includes the The Surinamese Creoles (mixed descendants of West African slaves and Europeans (mostly Dutch), and Surinamese Maroons (descendants of escaped West African slaves), but also people whose roots lay in Morocco and Turkey. The latter group are the families of men who were drafted to do factory-work in the Netherlands during the seventies, the idea being that they would return “home” after a few years. They didn’t, of course, and were soon joined by their families. Since the 1980s, there has also been a steady stream of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to the Netherlands. Some of them are now grandparents, with kids and grandkids who consider the Netherlands home (or try to, at any rate). All of these people are “allochtoon”.

Activist Kno'ledge Cesare of the "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" campaign

Activist Kno’ledge Cesare of the “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” campaign

“Autochtoon”, meanwhile, refers to white Dutch people (from the Greek word “autochthon”). The word means “from (or of) this earth”. Lulu Wang writes that, “The ‘allochtoon’ is the Other; the ones who are usually discussed as a problem population by the media, in the political sphere and academia; all of which are pre-dominantly white and male. The ‘allochtonen’ are located in the so-called ‘multicultural’ society that exists in juxtaposition to the ‘Dutch society’, the domain of ‘Dutch’ people also called ‘Autochtones’ which means “from this earth”.

The dualist relationship in which the two groups are locked in characterises the way Dutch society deals with the identities of her citizens. One can be Dutch by passport but that doesn’t mean one can automatically claim the national identity of ‘Dutchman’. For this identity the main condition is that one simply is White or looks White. Although whiteness determines whether one can claim the national identity, the effects of this ethnic factor are not being acknowledged. The ethnic factor and its power effects become invisible as it’s turned into an neutral universal category (that sets the norm) by particularising the identity of the Other; the migrant, her children and grandchildren. The identities of non-whites versus “Dutch” people are defined in terms of difference, dichotomies: the Allochtoon becomes everything the white Dutch person, the Autochtoon, is not.

This is problematic when it comes to having an active role in the way the nation-state should be organised. Although we are officially all equal, membership counts when it comes to public deliberation. The second rate citizenship of the ‘Other’ was also used as a strategy in the debate on Black Peter.”

All the above allows the Dutch to talk up their belief in the equality of and equal rights for all regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, religious beliefs, etc. while maintaining one or more of the psychological structures that prevent most from believing that everyone is indeed of equal value or deserving of respect. When black people dare to act like full members of society, the mask of equality starts to slip, and the face that is revealed is not a pretty one. And, irony of ironies, when black people decide not to act like full members of society, they are accused of failing to integrate.

Jackie Magazine's "Nigga Bitch" faux pas.

Jackie Magazine’s “Nigga Bitch” faux pas.

In this context, one can start to understand why the unemployment rate of non-white Dutch people (at 15% in the first quarter of 2012) is two and a half times higher than the Dutch average. One also starts to understand why black and white Dutch people see nothing wrong with a film like Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (“Only Decent People”) or why, in December last year, the editor of Dutch fashion magazine Jackie thought it was okay to give its readers fashion advice that they could dress like a “Nigga Bitch,” associating the style with Rihanna. Rihanna, of course, didn’t hold back in her response (she’s not black Dutch, so one imagines she didn’t know her place), and the editor was forced to resign. But here’s the thing, many white and black people felt the editor would have kept her job, if the controversy hadn’t been picked up outside the Netherlands. Those who objected were labelled “too sensitive” (this is also often used to dismiss anyone who objects to Zwarte Piet). When the editor was first confronted about the racist slur, her response was that it was just a “bad joke.”

Why do people defend Zwarte Piet?
Why do people keep defending Zwarte Piet? Is it that they really can’t see that it is racist or that they don’t want to see?

One blogger (Toby Sterling) writes that actually, the people who defend Zwarte Piet know all to well that he is a racist caricature, but that they are experiencing the psychological phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance”: the brain filters out new information (Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature) that conflicts with what one already believes (I love Zwarte Piet and I am not a racist).

Others say it’s because the whole Sinterklaas-Zwarte Piet celebration is conflated with Dutch people’s freedom to do whatever they feel is normal without having to answer to anyone else. But when most of the people who are unhappy with the same single aspect of this celebration are also Dutch – either by birth or by taking Dutch citizenship – doesn’t that mean the pro-Piet brigade are trampling on the freedom of the anti-Piet groups? And isn’t this one of the things a true democracy is supposed to help sort out?

The unwillingness to even consider the views of those who don’t like this Zwarte Piet character suggests that this is about power, not only the power to ignore people considered inferior and whose feelings and opinions therefore don’t count, but also the power to define, label and depict others in a way that reflects the power of superior whites over inferior blacks, to exert an influence on the collective imagination, and to train people to accept their assigned positions and roles within society.


You don’t have to have a degree in psychology or sociology to work out that the figure of Zwarte Piet, and the use of words like “neger” and “allochtoon” ensure the continued internalisation of superiority in white Dutch people, and of inferiority and marginalization in black Dutch people. Nor do you need it to understand the associate power of symbols like Zwarte Piet. You can keep a symbolic boot on someone’s neck, and it can be just as effective as doing so physically, more so, even, as it’ll take the person on the ground longer to work out why he can’t get up.

The debate is also, as Lulu Wang writes, a discussion about citizenship and identity. “And because this discussion does not take place behind closed doors between politicians and intellectuals only, but in schools, between colleagues, family-members and friends, it offers us a chance to challenge old conceptions of self and other at many different levels. However, this annual debate is not sufficient to change things, but it can lead to more activism, a critical outlook and recognition of those situations where the same strategies of marginalization are being used. The Black servant and his White master can not be isolated from the social context, Dutch society, in which they exist.”

[youtube id=”O3QmZTb43Fg” mode=”normal” maxwidth=”760″]

The future
In researching this piece, and from discussing it with Dutch people, black and white, I discovered that this debate has been going on for years, every year. Initially, I thought that was cause for concern. Perhaps the defenders of the “tradition” believe so long as they don’t listen to anything the black Dutch people say, the debate will never get beyond talk, and the anti-Piet campaigners will give up from exhaustion. But I was reassured that the numbers (black and white) of those against this “tradition” are indeed growing. And when a politician publicly throws her lot in with you, it’s probably only a matter of time before the tide turns.

Forty-six-year-old playwright Walraven, for instance, says he used to be one of the many white men in Holland who would paint their faces black each year to the delight of children. “I stopped after I began working with black people,” he says. “Many people are offended by this symbol. In songs written before World War II, he was often called Sinterklaas’s slave, and the texts of many songs and lyrics about him, especially from the 19th century, make it very clear that he was a racist symbol. In the end, Black Pete always comes across as a little stupid, clumsy and one who talks strangely and doesn’t speak proper Dutch.”


Four years ago, he put on a play In the Shadow of the Saint about the debate over Black Pete at Amsterdam’s Krater Theater. One of messages of his play, which received a warm reception in the immigrant-filled neighbourhood where it premiered, is that you can still have Sinterklaas without Black Pete. “Many countries have abolished these kinds of things, but in Holland they still exist,” Walraven explains. “Nevertheless, most Dutch don’t consider themselves to be racist and feel they are being personally attacked when you criticize Black Pete.” He also said, though, that “The majority here in Holland refuse to talk about Black Pete. They are afraid that the people who discuss it want to take away Sinterklaas as a phenomenon.” Given the chance, he’d “… just get rid of him. You must admit that his origin is racist and that many people feel offended and hurt by it. It would be better to find another solution.”

Kno’Ledge says what he and his fellow campaigners want is a nationwide debate about the history of Zwarte Piet, not a complete cancellation of this Christmas celebration. As far as he is concerned, he is a full member of Dutch society, and as such sees it as his duty to help the country become truly multi-cultural and inclusive. He had a lot of interesting things to say when we spoke, and raised points that I had not encountered in my conversations with anyone else or in my research.

We will publish the conversation with Kno’Ledge tomorrow as part II of this series on Race, Power and Identity in the Netherlands.

I owe an invaluable debt to all the writers, activists and people of conscience whose writings formed the bulk of my research into this subject. Any omission of links is not intentional.